If it’s paradise you’re after, take the road south from Kalamata and drive for an hour. Your route will be hilly and winding but if you hug the coast, you’ll have the sea in sight for most of it. When you reach Kardamyli, you’ll know you’re nearly there.
This sleepy town, likened by Patrick Leigh Fermor to, ‘those Elysian confines of the world where Homer says that life is easiest for men,’ lies at the mouth of the Viros Gorge. Drop in at the kafenion, but be warned: linger too long and you’ll want to put down roots. Drive for ten minutes more, and pull up on the swing of the bend. Park, and get out to take your bearings from Meropi, a tiny island 100 metres from shore. To your left is a rough path, disappearing into the undergrowth. When you glimpse something bright through the leaves to your right, watch your step: inching to the edge you’ll gaze down on water so deep and turquoise you’ll think it a trick.
A sound rises above the cicadas: a turtle dove. Drawn on by its song, you pass through cypress pines to emerge in an olive grove. The trees here are gnarled and thick. Grasses lie on the dust-red earth, and beside you is a fig tree, sticky with fruit.
The grove sits just below the Taygetus mountains, and just above the Peloponnesian sea. In the early 1960s, Fermor and his wife, Joan, bought part of the grove, and built the home they would live in for the rest of their days.
Fermor’s account, ‘Sash Windows Opening on the Foam’, describes the villa going up. Camping in canvas tents, the couple marked the sun’s course and trod out rooms in the red earth. The two-year task was Herculean: a master-mason oversaw the laying of Taygetus limestone; almost every stick came by mule; the six-foot lintel took twelve men to lift. The results, Fermor wrote, were ‘splendid.’
The villa’s boundary wall begins not far from where you left your car. The route it follows to the grove’s opposite side was once part of the main coastal thoroughfare. When the Fermors arrived, what had been a kind of motorway was no more than a dusty track, rising and twisting and falling.
Halfway along the wall is a tall smoke-blue door. Standing on tiptoe and peering through its metal grid, you’re rewarded with a part-view of the villa.
My first sighting was through that grid.
I was twenty-two, and nursing an injured knee: descending from a Pyrenean climb with my boyfriend, I’d fallen. An Athenian friend told us about a quiet corner of the Greek mainland. He’d travelled the length of the country, he said, but this was the place he’d revisit.
Limping around Kardamyli, I was delighted. While my boyfriend swam from the town’s beach I read, or watched the sea. Short walks eased my injury enough for me to venture further. At the ancient path, I stood on tiptoe by the tall, blue door.
I could just make out a shuttered window, an open courtyard, and beyond, the sea. When a murmur of conversation drifted towards me, I dropped to my feet and walked on. Turning back, I saw the villa’s terracotta roof, poking above the wall.
After that first, accidental visit, my boyfriend and I visited Kardamyli every summer. For our honeymoon, we took a cottage in the grove. We swam to the island first thing, and strolled through the trees into town. Evenings, we stayed by the water until sunset. Sometimes, passing the blue door, we heard laughter, or the sound of cutlery on plates. Once, swimming in from the island, we saw people on the villa’s private cove: reading, picnicking.
For years after my divorce I was too sad to return. I wrote my second book, Silver and Salt, during that absence. The novel opens in 1958 when Max, a celebrity photographer, seduces an opera singer, Sophie. The couple have two daughters, Vinny and Ruthie. Ruthie is still a baby when Max leaves for Greece, telling Sophie he’ll find some land and build them a summer house. His plan, he promises, will ‘change their lives and make them happier.’
Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011. He was buried beside Joan in England, and ownership of their Greek home passed to the Benaki Museum. His obituaries carried shots of the villa’s tiled courtyard, overlooking the sea. Beyond my tiptoed stolen glimpses, they were my first sight of the place.
I created Max and Sophie’s summer house by drawing pencilled maps and plans, and looking at those obituaries. Digging out photos of my own, I took that unseen, half-imagined villa and made it real. The blue door on the path had sent me back to The Secret Garden. The metal grid I could just see through made me think of the ‘open iron lattice’ on the gate of Madame Vauquer’s boarding house in Père Goriot. Picturing the paths, winding down to the Fermors’ cove, I remembered Rebecca, and Tender is the Night. Here, then, was a fictional house waiting to be built. In losing my marriage, I’d lost a life. Here, too, was a way to make something from that nothing.
The book was in edits by 2014. With friends from my new, single life, I rented a house above Kardamyli. Setting foot on the pebbly cove again, I was overwhelmed by so strong a sense of loss I felt it physically.
There was a secondary, stranger, shock to come. Visiting the grove itself, I found the place changed, utterly. The boundary wall was longer than I remembered. Parts of it had been demolished, and replaced with iron gates. And Meropi, the tiny almond island, was further from the shore. Had water levels risen, I wondered, and the sea taken part of the grove? And as for the villa’s roof, why wasn’t it poking up above the boundary wall in the way that it always had?
It took several visits for me to understand that in writing my novel, I had been both author and architect. I had drawn my fictional grove in absentia, and returned to find something quite different: the real thing.
I’d fashioned my new coordinates unintentionally, or so I thought. By doing so, though, I’d allowed my characters to cross the grove more quickly, or to hide, or to take more interesting routes to the sea. And by bringing Meropi up close, I had made it possible for Vinny and Ruthie, two small girls who had just learned to swim, to race one another out to its shore and back again.
At the end of that trip, I emailed the Benaki Museum and asked to see the villa.
After all those years of standing on tiptoe, the instructions were remarkably simple: ‘On the path behind the villa, there’s a tall blue door. You will be met there at 10 a.m.’
I was shown the villa by a woman called Elpida, who, for the last years of Fermor’s life, had been his housekeeper. Standing in his study, she spoke of his generous hospitality, and his insistence on conversing in Greek. Surprises lay in wait in the villa’s grounds: objects I thought I’d imagined, in fact existed. Sight-lines through the gardens were identical to those in Silver and Salt, as were the aspects from the terraces. Leaving through a small courtyard, I saw an olive tree. When I noticed the circular bench wrapped round its trunk, I caught my breath. In Silver and Salt, Ruthie and Vinny sit on this bench with Eleni, their nanny, to compare dreams. Eleni names it the Dream-Bench. Unlike Fermor, who had left his tree to grow, and placed the bench around it, the girls’ father, Max, had hewn his to a stump.
I thought I’d taken the idea from a half-held memory of Odysseus. Returning to his home after years at sea, he’s tested by Penelope, who asks him to carry their bed outside. When he reminds her they’d made it from a living, rooted olive tree, she knows he is who he claims to be, and they are reunited.
The sequence of events is unclear. Did I re-read the Homer before I was given ‘Sash Windows opening on Foam’, which has the line: ‘The olives here are girded by stone seats and surrounded by rings of pebble-mosaic’? Or did I see the grove, and imagine what lay beyond the villa’s boundary wall? Did I make up that bench, or not?
I’m unsure of the answer. What I do know, though, is that, standing with Elpida in the midday sun, it was as if a rush of ice-cold water passed down my neck. There, right in front of me, was ‘the Dream-Bench’ where Ruthie and Vinny had sat with Eleni, who never was, one summer in their childhood, which had never happened, in the grounds of a house which both had, and had never, existed, telling her dreams they’d neither of them dreamed.